Remember the days when you could easily sleep til noon, and then some? Nowadays not so much, because for some reason getting a good night’s kip seems to be getting harder and harder as we get older.
New research from U.C. Berkeley has revealed that sleep quality declines with age. But while previous studies have shown that older people sleep less, it’s not actually because they need less sleep. Instead, the study published in Neuron, argues that as we age our brain mechanisms change, which makes it harder for us to figure out when we’re actually tired. This in turn can make it more difficult to get a full night’s ZZZs. And as we know, lack of shuteye can lead to some pretty serious health implications.
In the study scientists compared the amount and type of chemical signals involved in sleep in younger mice to older mice. They found that the chemical signals were the same regardless of the age of the mice. But as the mice got older, the receptors in the brain that receive those sleepiness signals decline. In basic terms, as we age the brain has the same sleep cues inside of it, but it is unable to pick up on those cues.
“It’s almost like a radio antenna that’s weak. The signal is there, but the antenna just can’t pick it up,” explains Matthew Walker, U.C. Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology, and the study’s co-author.
But don’t be thinking that you’ve got a fair few years before this lack of sleep kicks in. According to the researchers sleep decline often begins in the late 20s and early 30s, and continues on a steady downhill track of sleep deprivation as times go on.
Worryingly, by the time we hit 50, we’ll likely only have about half of the deep sleep that we were getting in our early 20s. And by 70, quality shut-eye practically goes out the window altogether as instead of going through the proper sleep cycles that ensure a good night’s rest, 70 plus-ers wake up throughout the night, which stops them falling into a truly deep sleep.
Forget wrinkles, professor Walker says that sleep is actually one of the most dramatic physiological changes that happen with ageing.
So what can we do about it? Not much right now, mainly because there hasn’t been a lot of research into how to prevent, slow down, or inhibit the decline of our sleepiness receptors with age.
But before you start sobbing into the pillow, study authors are hopeful that this research breakthrough might help them to develop medication and alternative therapies to improve the quality of our sleep as we age.
In the meantime the researchers have some advice for getting a better night’s kip, no matter your age. Little changes like avoiding caffeine after the early afternoon, sleeping in a room that’s slightly colder than usual and frequent exercise (but not within three hours of bedtime) can all help up your zed quota.
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